The Chatter

Local Startup Wins Seed Funding to Help Babies Sleep Safely

Shantell Roberts earns funding from Johns Hopkins to promote safe sleep for babies.

Six years ago, Shantell Roberts experienced every parent’s biggest nightmare: After a very brief illness, her 1-year-old daughter died from a viral infection. Since then, she has committed her life to advocating for the health of babies and mothers and, in 2012, established Touching Young Lives (TYL), a nonprofit improving the well being of infants and children through public education.

“I was not the first or the last mother to experience a painful and tragic loss,”she says. “But I chose to turn my pain into a purpose.”

Roberts now sits on the advisory board for the University of Maryland Department of Pediatrics’ Center for Infant and Child Loss. She is also currently a safe sleep coordinator for Baltimore City under the B’more for Healthy Babies Safe Sleep Initiative. In this role, she accepts referrals from families in need and supplies them with a Pack-n-Play.

“Two major issues that I encountered in this position: the Pack-n-Play being too large for some living spaces,” she says. “And not being able to serve families outside of Baltimore City.”

According to the Baltimore City Health Department, the city experienced the lowest infant mortality rate on record in 2015: 8.4 per 1,000 live births—a 19 percent decline from 2014. But there is still work to do, especially when its to comes to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which was responsible for 64 percent of infant deaths in 2015 and usually occurs during sleep.

While researching alternative sleeping spaces for infants, Roberts stumbled across a baby box used by pediatrician Dr. Megan Heere at Temple University Hospital, who got the idea from the Finnish.

Since the 1930s, expectant mothers in Finland have been given a box by the state that includes clothes, sheets, and toys using the empty box as a bed. It has helped the country achieve one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates, so Roberts was inspired to replicate the same practice in Maryland 

She developed the Portable Alternative Crib (PAC) for expectant mothers and caregivers, which will be a box with maternal self-care items and infant care products. But unlike its Finnish predecessor, Robert’s PAC features a mattress at the bottom of the box to serve as a baby’s first bed.

“It’s safe sleep for your baby in its simplest form,” she says. “A baby should sleep alone on their backs with nothing around them, and this provides that safety.”

In order to put her dream in motion, Roberts attended a free boot camp at Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab to learn techniques to implement her product. While in boot camp, she noticed the innovation lab was still accepting applications for the next cohort, so she applied and was accepted.

As a participant in the incubator, Roberts and nine others each received $1,000 to work on furthering their ideas. At the end of the program, Roberts received an additional $25,000 in seed funding to continue her work on the PAC. For every one sold, an additional PAC will be given to a family in need—and Roberts hopes to provide the product to homeless mothers in the future.

“I want to show that anybody, at any economic level can use this baby box,” she says. “My mission has always been to prevent others from experiencing the same pain that I did.”